Google up an early-'70s photo of Brigitte Bardot, and surely there was no more beautiful creature on earth. But fast forward a few decades and you've got a 76-year-old broad. Time isn't kind to anyone, and sometimes the pursuit of physical perfection is better left to youth. Unless we're talking motorcycles, of course: Because as the righteous know, few experiences compare with rushing a superbike of any age along a curvy road, banking through the corners and feeling your arm ligaments stretch taut as you turn on the gas.
But like today's homey fashions, some of the current über-rides aren't exactly easy on the eyes. Fouled with radiators, wiring and sensors, hoses, scoops and vents, they are technologically amazing but lack the mechanical purity of their forebears. An old engineering parable holds that what looks right is right. And since the original superbikes looked so absolutely and consummately right, we wanted to learn just how far the current species has really come since then.
To do so, we assembled one classic '70s superbikes from each of the five great motorcycle-producing nations-America, England, Germany, Italy and Japan-along with a sparkling new derivative of each. Our mission was to draw as straight a line as possible from old to new, because the original superbikes were actually today's naked bikes. Most lacked fairings and offered sit-up riding positions, and some worked better as tourers or commuters than hairpin straighteners. But still, they were the beginnings of superbikes as we know them today.
The 1976 BMW R90S Boxer's logicial descendent is the sporty HP2 Sport. For the '73 Ducati 750 GT, it's the versatile two-valve, air-cooled GT1000. In Harley-land, the iconic '77 XLCR Cafe Racer hands off to the XR1200. The Kawasaki choice was as easy as slam-dunking on the kids' court, with the original '73 Z1 greeting the all-new Z1000. And from Triumph comes the final '76 T160 Trident triple and the current Speed Triple hooligan bike.
Some readers may cry foul upon realizing there are no Hondas, Suzukis or Yamahas here, but this is no accident. Honda's game-changing 1969-'75 CB750 Four has no modern naked-bike equivalent on our shores. Suzuki's period liquid-cooled GT750 triple was more of a tourer, and a two-stroke at that. And Yamaha's RD400 and TX650 twins technically weren't even superbikes-although the two-stroke RD certainly beat its share of them.
The five modern bikes and their predecessors-kindly loaned by Motorcyclist readers-met at Willow Springs Raceway's Horse Thief Mile road course on a sunny April morning to go where no home-decorating magazine has gone before: Back to the Present. The five individual vignettes that follow give all the dirty secrets we discovered in our back-to-back rides on the racetrack and a two-lane desert loop. Without revealing too much detail in this introduction, we can unanimously tell you this: Buy an old bike to polish and a new one to ride. You'll be glad you did.